Intelligence surveillance: balancing privacy and security

Employment and Social Affairs

On 19th of November, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has published a report entitled “Surveillance by intelligence services: fundamental rights safeguards and remedies in the European Union”. This report follows a request by the European Parliament to conduct research into the protection of fundamental rights in the context of large-scale surveillance. Indeed, while intelligence services play a vital role in protecting national security, there is a need for stronger and more comprehensive oversight so that these services can be held to account. With regard to EU citizens fundamental rights, the report addresses matters related to the respect for private and family life (Article 7), the protection of personal data (Article 8) and the right to an effective remedy and a fair trial (Article 47) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The right to data protection is also laid down in Article 16 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), and in Article 39 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), reflected in Data protection directive.

Thus, this report highlights a sensitive issue characterized by the current spreading sense of insecurity in Europe: protecting citizens from security threats while safeguarding fundamental rights involves a delicate balance. According to the report, terrorist attacks and technological innovations, making possible large-scale data monitoring of our communications, have triggered concerns about violations of the rights to privacy and data protection in the name of national security protection.

Recently, CIA director, John Brennan, accused that the public’s reaction to the NSA mass data-collection program, which was revealed by “Snowden documents” in 2013, “has had the effect of dismantling intelligence capabilities”.

On 12 March 2014, the EP adopted a resolution on the US NSA surveillance programme, surveillance bodies in  various Member States and their impact on EU citizens’  fundamental rights. Indeed, the EU instruments are aimed at finding a proper balance between privacy and security by ensuring that the processing of personal data is carried out lawfully and only to the extent necessary for the fulfilment of the legitimate aim pursued. In this sense, FRA’s analysis highlights the importance of the accountability  mechanisms related to surveillance by intelligence oversight, as a means to ensure public accountability for the decisions and actions of intelligence  services. According to experts, oversight aims to  avoid the abuse of power, legitimize the exercise of intrusive powers and achieve a better outcome  after an evaluation of specific actions.

It has to be said that surveillance measures interfere greatly with individuals’ rights, but are, or at least should be, secret in nature. Therefore, individuals are bound to rely on a degree of trust in public authorities, which in turn must safeguard their fundamental rights.
Protecting individuals safeguarding their fundamental rights is a complex but achievable challenge that lawmakers need to meet.

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